“The Balek Scales” Summary by Heinrich Boll

“The Balek Scales” is a short story by Heinrich Böll about a young boy who uncovers a secret in his village and the surrounding areas. Here’s a summary of “The Balek Scales”.

“The Balek Scales” Summary

The narrator tells the story of his grandfather. For five generations, most of the people where he lived worked in the flax shed, dealing with the dust and heat. They worked hard, ate simple food and were happy. On Sundays, they had stew and on feast days, milk. The cottages only had one bed for the parents; the kids slept all around on benches.

When the parents go off to the flax sheds, the children take care of the house work. When the children are out of school, they gather mushrooms and herbs in the forest, which they sell. In summer, they bring in the hay and then gather hayflowers, which are also sold. They receive a fraction of the retail value.

The woods and the flax sheds belong to the Baleks. They have a chateaux in the village with a side room where the goods are weighed by Frau Balek on the great Balek scales. The children watch intently as she puts the weights on to bring the pointer to the black line. Frau Balek records the weight and pays out the corresponding sum. Sometimes, she gives the children a lemon drop.

The Baleks don’t allow anyone in the village to have a scale. Anyone who breaks this edict is fired from the flax sheds and can’t sell their goods, even in neighboring villages. Neither does it occur to anyone to break this rule, because their goods can be measured with cups, rulers or be counted, and the scale looks in perfect working condition.

"The Balek Scales" Summary Heinrich Boll
“The Balek Scales” Summary

The narrator’s grandfather is the first person bold enough to test the wealthy and prestigious Baleks. As a child, he goes deeper into the woods searching for mushrooms than anyone else. From the ages of seven to twelve, he keeps track of everything he brings to the Baleks and how much he’s paid for it.

When he’s twelve, the year is 1900, and in celebration, the Baleks give every family a quarter pound of coffee, some beer, and some tobacco. They hold a banquet for some notable guests.

On New Years Eve, the day before the banquet, the twelve-year old boy (the narrator’s grandfather) goes to the chateau to pick up the coffee for his family and three others. He waits while Gertrud the maid takes out the four packets of coffee, four ounces each. Finding the lemon drop jar empty, she goes to refill it.

The boy, noticing the pound weight on the scale, goes to the table and places the sixteen ounces of coffee on it. It doesn’t balance, and his heart thuds. He takes some pebbles from his pocket for his slingshot and has to place five of them with the coffee to balance it.

When Gertrud returns, the boy grinds the lemon drop under his foot and only takes three of the packages. He asks to see Frau Balek but Gertrud only laughs at him.

The boy takes the other families their coffee. He walks into the night for two hours to Honig the apothecary in Dielheim, who has a scale. He tells Honig he wants to have the pebbles weighed to find the amount that is short of justice.

Inside, the boy realizes how wet, tired and hungry he is. Overwhelmed by the injustice of the crooked weights, for himself and all the generations before, he burst into tears. He ignores the refreshments Frau Honig offers him. He doesn’t stop crying until Honig returns with the pebbles and informs him of their weight—fifty-five grams exactly.

“The Balek Scales” Summary, Cont’d

The boy makes the long walk home where he gets a beating. He doesn’t say anything about the coffee. He’s up until midnight making calculations from his records. The cannon shot is heard from the chateau, ringing in the new year. The family celebrates. The boy thinks of what he’s owed—eighteen marks and thirty-two pfennigs. He thinks of all the children who’ve been cheated by the Baleks. He tells his family what he’s found.

On New Year’s Day, the Baleks go to High Mass in their carriage, expecting to see decorations and the villagers welcoming them. Instead, they see hard faces. In church, the villagers are also silent and hostile. Feeling the tension, the priest struggles through his sermon.

While walking out among the cold crowd, young Frau Balek asks the boy why he didn’t take the coffee. He says he’s owed five kilos of coffee, that their pound weight is fifty-five grams short. The villagers break into a song about justice.

Meanwhile, the poacher, Wilhelm Volha, breaks into the small room and steals the scale and record book. He brings it to the narrator’s great-grandparents front room where, after church, the men gather and calculate their losses. Before they finish, the police arrive in force and retrieve the stolen items. The boy’s little sister is killed, several men are wounded and one of the officers is killed in the confrontation.

Two neighboring villages also rebel. No work is done in the flax sheds for a week. The authorities threaten them with prison and they go back to work. The priest is ordered to demonstrate the fairness of the scales but no one watches. The children go back to their gathering and selling.

Every Sunday, when the Baleks enter the church, the hymn about justice is played. It soon gets banned.

The narrator’s grandfather’s parents leave the village and become basket weavers. The don’t stay anywhere long; there’s corruption everywhere. Passersby sometimes hear them singing the justice hymn as they walk behind their cart with their thin goat.

Those who wanted to listen to the story of the Baleks lack of justice could hear it, but few did.

(End of “The Balek Scales” summary)

I hope this summary of “The Balek Scales” was helpful.